Age and Nostalgia

Brian Bieniowski makes an interesting point in the comments to this post, and it's one that is, I think, worth opening up for discussion. Talking about Dave Itzkoff's column, he says,
His column seems too calculatedly ageist for me to take very seriously, as though his essential conceit is that we still shouldn't be trusting anyone over the age of thirty. It is too easy to diss nostalgia when it's your elders' nostalgia. Within the Itzkoff Retirement Home, 2040, where everyone reminisces of the days of internet fiascos and flame-wars, I can imagine the furious youth flaming the sepia-toned Ben Rosenbaum and Christopher Rowe short-story collections, and all that old-fogey blog crit nobody reads anymore.
This reminded me of a conversation I had with a writer friend some time back, when he said he looked forward to the day when he and I would be like the old guys on "The Muppet Show" who booed everything and hated everybody. "Nobody's writing anything worth reading anymore!" we'll cry. "Not like when we were in our prime!" ("Remember when we all had our blogs and hadn't had our brains uploaded into the Bush-Clinton Imperial Library yet? Oh, those were the days!")

I would like to disagree a bit with Brian that it's all about younger up-and-coming writers, though. There is a generational difference within the SF community in certain ways, in that a lot of the younger writers did not rise up through fandom, and their influences include more weird pop culture than they do Asimov or Heinlein, but there is also a segment of younger readers and writers who are interested in the traditional core of SF, and there are also a lot of writers working their way toward their own retirement homes who are not simply trying to rewrite the stories they wrote when they first got published. I don't care a bit about the age of a writer, because their age doesn't tell me anything about how they write or what they're interested in. The writers who interest me are the writers who surprise me, and surprise can come from a writer of any age, just as a writer of any age can be derivative and unimaginative.

What I try to fight against in myself, sometimes successfully and sometimes not, is the ossification of perspective -- I don't want to end up twenty or thirty years from now thinking that the only type of writing that is interesting is the kind of writing that was exciting in 2006. I hope that I will change enough as a person and a writer, and that the world of writing and the world at large will change enough in that time for me to discover new types of stories to appreciate and new ways of appreciating them. If not, I can't imagine any reason to keep reading and writing.


  1. But Itzkoff loves the Anne McCaffrey story too...?

  2. You may have dodged the point of my original comment a little by not including the first portion, which is essentially that Itzkoff has become a little more "okay" now (after the twin fiascos of his original column and reading list) because he has proven himself to have sensibilities similar to many bloggers who originally villified him. I am surprised by this reaction because I felt he had a number of somewhat fallacious things to say about science fiction in general and nostalgia in particular. I'd be interested to read your own opinions, Matt, about SF and nostalgia, as you intimated you were more wary than Itzkoff about this trait (positive? negative?).

    I'm not sure I feel surprise is a reliable barometer of what is worth reading, especially when surprise can be such a nebulous and subjective reaction. Nevertheless, I am reminded, by the whole matter, of people who constantly seek innovation and novelty in the music and movies they like and how quickly such folks burn out after a short time, sticking with whatever genre or style had imprinted itself upon them originally, essentially the same as the folks who were satisfied playing the same things over and over again. I'm speaking generally of course, but I'm sure you know the type I'm thinking of. Maybe it is fluidity, rather than beauty, that is in the eye of the beholder?

  3. Yes, I did dodge the beginning of your comment, Brian, because I was more interested in looking at the idea of generations and such. I haven't looked at his column again, so I may be off the mark here, but where he seemed to be going was to say that nostalgia (of some sort) is a common element of SF, the yearning for lost childhood, etc. There are stories that fit that, sure, and I don't care for them, because I disliked childhood quite vehemently and wouldn't go back to being a kid for anything. There's a kind of aesthetic nostalgia, though, that I do think is more prevalent, often deliberately so, particularly when editors and critics are trying to solidify boundaries between types of writing and create formulas for what is and isn't acceptable. Maybe "nostalgia" is the wrong term for that sort of thing, and we should use instead something like "reactionary" or "conservative" ... but that probably wouldn't go over too well, either...

    You're right that "surprise" is not the best criterion, but it's the only one I've been able to settle on as generally applicable, with the fewest exceptions. I apply it broadly -- surprise at an image or phrase, surprise at a plot point, surprise at ... well, anything. Without that, I just don't get to any of the other things that I also appreciate.

  4. Brian, I think you have a particularly interesting point about innovation, and whether newness in itself ought to be part of our critical landscape, though I agree that 'surprise' may not do a more satisfactory job. In the case of metaphor, to take an example, surprise may make me sit up and take notice, but then I always ask myself if it's apt, if it belongs in this particular context, if it's beautiful (or ugly, or whatever, because that too might work). Far too often there is a desperate struggle for surprise without an underlying sense of truth. ('Oh yes, time for another one. Haul out the metaphor shaker.') This has something, I suspect, to do with the ethical dimension of fiction.

    Matt implies that we need surprise to take notice. But what about reading the same beautiful image/line/whatever over and over again, and still getting the frisson of - well, what? beautytruth, for lack of a better word...

    A question for me would be whether SF writers strive more for this element of innovation or surprise than the mainstream.

    Much of the need for newness is a general cultural phenomenon, not just a literary one, of course. Storytellers in other cultures were/are often more concerned with transmission and preservation, not innovation. And think of children and the question of surprise. You can tell them the same story, with the same 'surprise', hundreds and hundreds of times - not only do they appreciate it, they even seem genuinely surprised, or something very close. Or this another sort of surprise?

    And Matt, I can't imagine any writer saying they hope to ossify! But to perfect their particular gift...the old fox/hedgehog distinction, perhaps.

  5. Updike's reviewing guidelines (via James Tata):

  6. "How astounded and indignant was I, when innocent, to find reviewers blabbing, and with the sublime inaccuracy of drunken lords reporting on a peasants' revolt, all the turns of my suspenseful and SURPRISEFUL narrative!"--J. Updike (emphasis mine)

    From the above link, Updike does bring forward the importance of "surprise" within a narrative.

    Part of the reason that Jeff Ford is one of my favorite writers is because of how he uses the element of surprise, both in metaphor and in how the plot turns, engaging me as a reader because the surprises are logical (no matter how surreal) to the story.

    --Eric S

  7. when he said he looked forward to the day when he and I would be like the old guys on "The Muppet Show" who booed everything and hated everybody.

    That would, actually, be awesome . . .

  8. A hearty here here on your closing comments. There's plenty of young writers who are regurgitating and plenty of old boys who are breaking new ground.

    There's only one way to evaluate a work of fiction before buying for me. Open book to a random page, read excerpt, repeat as necessary until satisfied/dissatisfied.


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